Forgotten Hero

Sharing the same name, looking uncannily alike and both unbelievably connected to the same far-off location, two relatives, separated by almost a century, are brought together by a faded old photograph

The old photograph of Richard Swiggs had lain hidden in a cupboard for decades, unseen by my family. It wasn’t until an elderly aunt passed away and her belongings distributed to various relatives that the faded image, a bucolic Cornish scene of a man standing in front of a farm gate, came to light. Written on the back of the photograph was ‘Richard Swiggs’, the brother of William, my great grandfather. William was a man I had often heard my mother mention; she could remember him sitting by the fireplace after Sunday lunch, merry from a glass of beer, playing old folk songs on his squeeze box: but as for Richard, nobody seemed to know anything about his life.

Taken sometime in the late 19th century, this photograph of a young man, shabbily dressed with the evidence of a hard life lived on the land already etched on his face, probably would have been forgotten had it not been for one remarkable feature; the man in the picture was me- or rather the resemblance was so great that given a ill-fitting crumpled suit and a pocket watch, I could have been his twin. Something intrigued me about great great Uncle Richard- we shared the same name, we looked disturbingly similar, so what else could I find out about this man that everyone seemed to have forgotten?

So back in 1995, with a handful of names and dates, I decided to unravel the lives of my ancestors and with the hope not only to find Uncle Richard but also to see how far back in time I could go before the trail went cold. I relished the chance of vicariously living through my forefathers whether they were swashbuckling mariners, pioneering immigrants, reprehensible criminals or best of all, had a connection with the aristocracy. Little did I know that Richard would eventually help me discover roots that raced back through the centuries some 600 years and reveal a connection between us stranger than the photograph.

At first, I felt delving in to my family’s past was rather like meeting strangers that I was sure I had encountered in my dreams- some of the names were familiar, the places certainly, but as real people, they were hard to imagine. But slowly, as my surname led me to various resources, some ancestors appear frequently, some hardly at all and a sense of familiarity aided my research.

Richard Swiggs first appeared on the 1891 census. At that time he was an 11-year-old schoolboy, doubtless helping his father John, who was a farm hand, at harvest time and with the horses. In the summer, I’m sure he would have walked with his brothers and sisters to the nearby beaches around Lanteglos on the south coast of Cornwall, scrumped for apples and wondered to which exotic lands the ships from the nearby port of Fowey sailed.

For his parents it must have been a tough life. John and Catherine Swiggs had 14 children during their long marriage and lived in a small cottage near Lanreath, a small village near the popular tourist town of Looe, which even today feels remote. But sadly that was the one and only record I could find for Richard: he simply disappeared and I had already reached a dead end.

As I traced both my maternal and paternal families, the years rolled back; I found a census return for my great grandfather Paul, a sailor who was a deck hand on the merchant ship the Vivian that sailed from Portsmouth. Family tradition says that he made frequent trips to California and begged his wife to join him there, but she refused and preferred to stay in the little village of Polruan; emigration must have seemed as daunting then as it is today and although there was the attraction of more money and a new life away from the poverty of Cornwall at that time, family ties were strong and the tight sense of community that existed then must have made it difficult to leave.

My great great grandfather Nicholas was a copper miner near Mevagissey – a job obsolete in the county now, but back in the late 1800s thousands of men risked their lives every day for the burgeoning industrial nation. Agricultural labourers, fishermen, all the way back to the late 15th century; simple people, simple lives but the wealth of a country was built on just these very people; even if my family had no blue blood pumping through their veins, for me they now had a nobility far surpassing any aristocratic lineage.

However, Richard Swiggs still remained silent. I imagined he had joined a ship or emigrated to one of those far away places he possibly had thought about while gazing out to sea, as I had done when I was a child. Perhaps he lived to an old age as a farmer in Australia or America, but all research in those countries’ records drew a blank and I gave up the search.

 In the late 1990s I went to live abroad, to Istanbul where I became an English teacher, translator, journalist and sometime actor. Living in a foreign country where the culture was so different, strangely brought out my own innate identity, mainly due to the interest that Turkish people had for my heritage. Being born in England and indeed Cornwall, didn’t necessarily make me particular aware or proud of where I came from, whereas for my Turkish friends, identity and being part of an intensely proud nation was everything. This is when I started to express my uniqueness: not only was I English, but distinctively Cornish too, and people were interested in that very fact.

When I returned to the UK last year, I remember sitting in my mother’s living room, and there, on the mantelpiece was the old photograph of uncle Richard, staring at me…I felt it was time to revive the hunt.

 

Researching my family tree 10 years on was certainly easier than when I first tried all those years ago, poring over documents in the local record office - these days the Internet brings everything to your fingertips and it was the ideal place for me to start. Almost immediately, I found branches of my family tree going back to the late 15th century, it seemed as easy as that; someone had already done most of the work. But then you realise it’s the detail that counts. It becomes more about finding out what your ancestors did - where they lived, how they fitted in to their surroundings; that became much more important than just creating a tree bearing my surname

 

As I had no idea what happened to Richard after 1891, I really didn’t know where to look for him until one day I came across some chance information on the Commonwealth War Graves Commission website 

 

HMS Goliath was a British warship built in 1898 that patrolled the seas around the world from China to the English Channel. In 1913 she was mothballed but at the outbreak of WW1 she was sent to the East Indies returning in the spring of 1915 to take part in the Dardenelles Offensive. On the night of the 12th May 1915 whilst off the coast of southwest Turkey, HMS Goliath was struck by a torpedo from a German warship and capsized almost immediately. Of the 700 crew onboard, only 130 survived.

 

At 1am that morning, whilst serving with the Royal Navy, Richard Swiggs, my great great uncle drowned in the waters of the Aegean. Finally I had found him.

 

During my 8 years in Istanbul I visited the war graves near Canakkale, down the coast from the city. It’s a very moving place; quietly eerie but in some strange way full of the voices of almost 100,000 Turkish and Allied soldiers who lost their lives there during the futile campaign. I wasn’t looking for Richard at that time, I didn’t know who he was, but I remember the epitaph on the huge granite memorial at Anzac Cove, written by Mustafa Kemal, the founder of the Turkish Republic. I feel it’s fitting for my long lost ancestor who died in a country that I, many years later, came to love and where I discovered my own identity

 

 

 

"Those heroes that shed their blood

and lost their lives...
You are now lying in the soil of a friendly country,
therefore rest in peace.
There is no difference between the Jonnies
and the Mehmets to us where they lie side by side.
Here in this country of ours...
You, the mothers,
who sent their sons from far away countries
wipe away your tears.
Your sons are now lying in our bosom
and are in peace.
After having lost their lives on this land they have
become our sons as well."
 
RICHARD HAMBLY SWIGGS 1880-1915